Despite war, Indians rush to fill Israel's construction jobs gap

Hundreds of carpenters, bricklayers and painters wait at the gates of the recruitment center in the hope of securing a job in Israel. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Ahmer Khan

Hundreds of carpenters, bricklayers and painters wait at the gates of the recruitment center in the hope of securing a job in Israel. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Ahmer Khan

What’s the context?

Thousands are applying for jobs in Israel, where building sites have been short of workers since the start of the Hamas conflict

  • Higher wages lure Indians to Israeli construction jobs
  • Amid Hamas war, Israel seeks to plug labour shortage
  • Workers brush aside safety concerns as Gaza conflict rages

LUCKNOW, India - Carpenters, bricklayers and painters waited in line at a college campus in the Indian city of Lucknow this week in hope of being selected for better-paid jobs in Israel, with most playing down concerns about working in a conflict zone.

Israel's construction industry has been calling for the recruitment of foreign workers to fill jobs previously occupied by about 80,000 Palestinian workers barred from entering Israel since the start of the war between Israel and the Hamas militant group in October.

Indian workers have been promised monthly salaries of $1,600 by Israel's Population Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA) - equivalent to almost a full year's salary for many Indian construction workers.

For workers like Ashok Biswas, a 45-year-old mason who travelled 1,000 km (620 miles) from West Bengal to Lucknow when he heard about the hiring drive, the prospect of a much higher salary made the decision to apply easy, despite the ongoing conflict with Hamas.

"Our sole goal is to secure a means to live and it could be anywhere in the world," Biswas told Context as he queued up outside the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) on Monday.

Israel plans to bring in about 70,000 foreign workers from China, India and elsewhere to boost its construction sector, which has been largely frozen since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that triggered the war, an Israeli newspaper reported this month.

Israeli farms, buildings sites and hotels are among the sectors struggling with a shortage of workers since the war erupted, and some foreign migrant labourers have left, fearing for their safety.

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Tough labour market

During the week-long recruitment campaign in Lucknow, just over 5,000 people were selected, said Ajay Kumar Raina from the federal government's National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC).

Five more Indian states have also asked the NSDC to carry out recruitment for Israeli jobs, Raina said.

Their interest highlights India's tough labour market, with creation of formal jobs stagnating and high rates of joblessness among the young, economic analysts say.

India, now the world's most populous nation with a population of 1.4 billion, has an urban unemployment rate of 6.6%, government data shows, but more than 17% of workers younger than 29 are unemployed and others work as casual labour.

Unemployment and underemployment are a key concern for authorities, despite world-beating economic growth of 7.3%.

Shashikant Yadav, a 25-year-old college graduate who was among those participating in the selection process, said strong interest in migrating to work in a conflict zone highlighted job-seekers' problems in India.

"If there was employment, who would leave their homes to go to Israel?" Yadav said.

As Hindu-Muslim tensions in India simmer ahead of this year's election, one local recruiter was quoted as saying on social media that Muslims would not be allowed to apply for the Israeli jobs - a claim swiftly denied by Indian government officials.

In the crowd in Lucknow, Mohammad Nazim, a Muslim mason from the city of Ghaziabad, said he had been free to apply.

"Despite fears, as Muslims, we've faced no hindrance so far," said Nazim, a father-of-two, adding that like the other applicants in Lucknow, he simply wanted to earn a better wage.

Indian workers wait for practical tests at the recruitment center in Lucknow on Monday, January 29. After 5000 workers were selected, other states in India have requested a similar recruitment drive, officials say. Thomson Reuters Foundation//Ahmer Khan

Indian workers wait for practical tests at the recruitment center in Lucknow on Monday, January 29. After 5000 workers were selected, other states in India have requested a similar recruitment drive, officials say. Thomson Reuters Foundation//Ahmer Khan

Indian workers wait for practical tests at the recruitment center in Lucknow on Monday, January 29. After 5000 workers were selected, other states in India have requested a similar recruitment drive, officials say. Thomson Reuters Foundation//Ahmer Khan

Israeli efforts to recruit foreign workers during the war have drawn criticism from trade unionists in India, with some calling the push "immoral" and criticising the Indian government for agreeing to send workers.

"The government is taking a position by sending our workers to a war-torn and unsafe environment, which contradicts our immigration policy," said Amarjeet Kaur, general secretary of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC).

Indian government officials have said an agreement on labour mobility with Israel was signed before the Hamas conflict erupted, saying workers' safety and rights would be protected.

But many of the workers lining up in Lucknow said the promise of increased income was their only concern.

"Loyalty goes to the land that offers us sustenance - in this venture, it means supporting Israel," 29-year-old Imtiaz Ansari said after completing a practical test on tiling.

After travelling from his home in Maharajganj near the Nepal border, Ansari said he waited three days just to get registered and had been sleeping at the railway station.

"My primary goal is to secure a better income to afford quality education for my two kids," he said.

(Reporting by Ahmer Khan in Lucknow; Editing by Helen Popper and Amruta Byatnal.)


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